Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Christian life (Page 3 of 16)

Some thoughts on Lent, repentance and the power of symbol

5521959239_37e036560e_bThis year I’m observing Lent for the first time.

For most of my Christian life – over thirty years, in fact – I’ve attended Pentecostal churches. Seasons on the church calendar like Lent and Advent barely register on the radar of Pentecostal and other non-traditional churches. However, we’re now transitioning into a local Anglican congregation. What this means in practice is that we’re also still going to our former Pentecostal church every few weeks to keep our daughter company. (Going to both a Pentecostal and an Anglican church makes for some interesting contrasts, I can tell you!)

Anyway, this means I have the opportunity to experience some of the more ancient practices of the church in ways that I’ve never even been aware of before. Thus my observance of Lent.

In brief, Lent is a period running up to Easter during which Christians focus specifically on prayer, repentance, self-denial and charity. It generally begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday), though there are variations depending on which branch of the church you belong to (Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant). This period is intended to commemorate the forty days Jesus is said to have spent in the desert before commencing his public ministry. It is essentially an opportunity to quiet the voice of the ego or the “false self” (what the Apostle Paul often referred to as “the flesh”) and allow certain behaviours and/or thought patterns to die so that the Spirit can breathe new life in their place.

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A thousand chances

3156541867_8f0e7f3fae_bIt’s New Year’s Eve. As we stand here on the threshold of another revolution around the sun, allow me to share a brief thought.

As I’ve written before, I’m not generally a huge fan of New Year’s resolutions; it seems to me they are often little more than a recipe for deferred disappointment. However, I do think New Year is a good opportunity to take stock of where we are and where we’re heading.

Of course, where we are and where we’re heading will differ for each of us, but it seems to me there’s one thing we all need in life, whatever our age or social and geographical location: more chances. We need the chance to learn from our mistakes; the chance to show grace where we have previously withheld it; the chance to say sorry where we have previously dug ourselves into a deep rut of pride; the chance to open our arms in welcoming embrace where we have previously folded them and turned our backs.

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The Beatitudes for today

8341450211_a46c86f6c9_oBlessed are the self-confident, for the world shall be their oyster.

Blessed are those with a positive mental attitude, for they shall always bounce back in short order.

Blessed are the bold, for they shall be able to get what they want.

Blessed are those who do not concern themselves with others’ problems, for they shall live happily ever after in a cocoon of serenity.

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Dealing with fear

paris-terrorToday I’d like to talk a little bit about fear. Not in the abstract, but in the all too concrete. To do so, I need to get personal and talk about a recent experience of mine.

I would say I am not generally a fearful person. I don’t go through life worrying about imagined future possibilities. But a couple of nights ago, for some reason, I had a bad night… a night of real fear.

I woke up in the middle of the night, as I sometimes do, but instead of drifting back to sleep I found myself thinking about the recent terror attacks in Paris and the likelihood – if not the certainty – that there will be more and much worse to come.

As I thought about the Middle East, ISIS, the migrant/refugee crisis, and growing social tensions in a number of western nations, my mind began to play out apocalyptic scenarios involving not only terrorist attacks, bombings and the spectre of a group like ISIS obtaining nuclear weapons, but also a total breakdown of law, order and the social fabric within my own country, and all the attendant impacts on home, family… even survival. Try as I might, I could not quiet my thoughts and go back to sleep.

I don’t know how long I was awake; it may only have been an hour or so, but as I laid there in a cold sweat and with my heart pounding, it felt like a lot longer. Then, finally, sleep came and I didn’t wake again until the morning.

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On the false self and self-disclosure in the internet age

6988270931_5bf6a75fd7_oI first heard the name of Trappist monk Thomas Merton a few years ago in an article by the late Michael Spencer at The Internet Monk. Being at that point a stranger to the idea of contemplative spirituality, I registered mild interest and moved on. In recent years, thanks to the work of Richard Rohr and others, the idea of a quieter, more reflective form of spiritual practice has gradually endeared itself to me. (Though, lest anyone should think I’m now an accomplished contemplative, think again: I’m very much a novice at the beginning of the journey.) So it is that I’ve finally got around to reading some of Merton’s work – namely, his 1962 book New Seeds of Contemplation.

This book is so brimming with rich, thought-provoking insight that I stopped highlighting it after I realised that I was highlighting just about every paragraph.

One of the topics Merton often touched on in his writing was the distinction between what he called the false self and the true self. I’d like to share with you a short section from New Seeds on what he means by the false self, and then consider how this plays out in our lives and, in particular, in our engagement with social media:

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Some brief thoughts on fulness of life

The word abundance carved in a log of wood, outdoors on grass and under a cloudy sky

“I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”
(John 10:10)

This verse, in my experience, surely ranks among the favourite scriptures of contemporary western Christians.

After all, who could not want the abundant life? Who could refuse the promise – from the lips of Jesus, no less – of more and better?

However, call me a cynic (go on, call me a cynic!), but I see a couple of problems here.

First, our idea of what constitutes the abundant life is substantially influenced by the consumer capitalist culture in which we live. Ask any person in the street – or, more pertinently, in the church – what they understand by the “abundant life”, and chances are they’ll respond with something along the lines of more influence, a better job, more money, more status, more possessions, a bigger house… After all, how can an adjective like “abundant” mean anything other than bigger and better?!

In sum, the culture in which we live has exclusively defined “abundant” as clearly meaning nothing other than more, bigger, and better. And a large section of the church – notably the charismatic and Pentecostal wing thereof – has gone right along with this understanding. What else could Jesus have possibly meant? What else can “blessing” mean other than more money, more health… in short, more power and influence?

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Believer or follower?

Follow JesusI’m painfully aware that I haven’t blogged much lately. Sometimes you go through a patch where inspiration is harder to find; something I’m learning is that it’s best at such times to simply take the pressure off yourself and wait for your mojo to return. So think of this as a seasonal slump, and fear not: I’m sure I’ll soon be back in full swing.

In the meantime, today I’d like to share a simple thought that I’ve been pondering recently.

It seems to me that in many cases, the Christian faith has been reduced to a set of propositional truths. Faced with the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?”, I suspect many people would give an answer along the lines that being a Christian means believing in various doctrines. Further, the required doctrines are often nicely summed up in a church statement of beliefs or, failing that, we can easily fall back on one of the historic creeds.

The point is that for many people, being a Christian is purely about what you believe.

In light of how Jesus lived and what he taught, I find this curious.

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